Thursday, August 7, 2008

How I Understand the Greeks

Philosophy is know-how. Practice, not preaching, is at its center. Philosophy is to seek the path towards who we want to be—through self-discipline, not through belief.

Wisdom is an idea. Philosophy is a way of life designed according to how we define that idea.

To claim to have achieved wisdom is unwise. To claim wisdom or goodness as an accomplishment or a received gift is a delusion. To be good means only to strive for what is best.

Becoming, not being.

Good intentions have value, whatever their outcomes, which may not turn out to be good—such are our limits as mortals. Good intentions are good because they imply that we are willing to act.

One should focus on good practice, living in the present, rather than on outcomes. To focus on good outcomes is to hope. Hope is a natural, often harmless impulse, but it has no moral value. Hope is magical thinking. In contrast, goodness and wisdom are matters of action and the practices we follow.

Hope is destructive when it blocks the willingness to act. In the conduct of our lives, excessive focus on hope stunts our progress, leads to self-deception, and justifies inaction.

The proper conduct of our lives requires us to focus on those practices that help us to become who we want to be.

Plato saw humanness as an accomplishment—through discipline, education, and exercise—not as a state of being. We are not born fully human. Discipline is to control or manage the self (or the soul). Education is to broaden the self by acquiring know-how. Exercise is to practice good conduct in life.

Plato taught mathematics and logical argument as two practices capable of transforming who we are. He also encouraged his students to contemplate death and the transcendence of the universe as a way to develop their humanity.

Plato’s main purpose was political, to transform society—through individual transformation—and he defined humanity in terms benefiting the transformation of society.

On the other hand, Aristotle reversed Plato’s direction—viewing the improvement of society as a way to improve the individuals within it. Aristotle evaluated politics according to how well it permits citizens to transform themselves.

Aristotle taught his students to analyze the world around them scientifically—to categorize and dissect—to experience their surroundings in a deeper, more exact way—to develop technology—in order to improve society.

Later, the Epicureans and Stoics established communities based on shared practices and life conduct. The Epicureans sought to control their desires and actions to achieve a consistently pleasant life. The Stoics sought to control their desires and actions to achieve harmony with nature. Like Plato and Aristotle before them, both philosophical schools sought the know-how to transform themselves to who they wanted to be.

Greek philosophy is separate from Greek religion, though of course both are culturally related. Philosophy involves ideas, but almost no mythology (narratives designed to explain or simplify cause and effect). Philosophy promotes practice and know-how, but not ritual and supernatural power. Philosophers contemplate death, but seldom concern themselves with an after-life.

Later, philosophy became the academic study of texts, rather than the practice of consciousness-expanding exercises. What Plato meant came to be more important than what Plato did. By the twentieth century, academic philosophy was more or less linguistics, not the practice of self-discipline and personal transformation in the conduct of one’s life.

According to Pierre Hadot, upon whose understanding of Greek philosophy mine is largely based, Christianity killed off classical philosophy by marketing itself as a substitute. Christianity combined philosophy and religion. It taught its followers how to conduct their lives and explained where the world came from and how it came to be the way it is now, as well as predicting its ultimate destiny.

Christianity is, then, a kind of supermarket for ideas, one-stop shopping for the mind. Also, unlike Greek religion or Greek philosophy, it is dogmatic—demanding belief (and a particular set of beliefs) in exchange for a one-size-fits-all life in eternity. Rather than attempting to improve life in the present, the goal of Christian transformation (rebirth) is to ensure good seats in the hereafter.

In time, what Jesus meant came to be more important than what Jesus said or did. The theology of Jesus as God has all but eclipsed the reported teachings of Jesus. (For instance, few Christian pastors teach or practice Jesus' instruction to give away all one's possessions to the poor ... or to turn the other cheek when attacked. Jesus may have been God but he said a lot of things that are apparently practically useless to modern Christians.)

For the Greek philosophers, good conduct makes us good people. Right practice is better than righteousness achieved.

Good conduct for Christians does not make us good or even better people, though it does please a potentially irate God.

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